A memorable day's skiing for all the family...
Whether you're with family or friends, it's hard to think of a more exciting day out than skiing from the top of a large ski area right down to the bottom through glorious landscapes in a safe environment. A perfect example is the Piste de Sarenne, in Alpe d'Huez, recognised as being the longest ski run in the Alps.
A list of some of our favourite runs
The leading resort in the Massif de l'Oisans, in the Isère département, Alpe d'Huez (at an altitude of 1,800m) has a huge network of cable cars and chair lifts on its more gentle south-facing slopes. As a result, it is the perfect ski area to explore with groups of friends on runs that are easy, not too challenging and bathed in warm sunshine.
For a more challenging adventure, you might want to take the impressively vertiginous cable car up to the summit of the Pic du Lac Blanc, at an altitude of 3,323m, where you are rewarded with a view worthy of three Michelin stars... before embarking upon your impressive descent: 16km of unbroken piste along the record-breaking Sarenne run, which will take you a full hour and a half to complete. This clearly marked, monitored piste is classified as a "black run" but is suitable for sensible skiers who are able to tackle blue runs with relative ease.
As a family, it's important to ski at your own pace and to take your time! On the south-east-facing slopes of the Crêtes de l'Herpie, you'll find yourself on the "reverse" side of the ski area, in which the ski lifts and crowds have disappeared and the landscape has suddenly become wild and unspoilt - the perfect setting for lunch by the side of the piste. At this point you might want to take a diversion to reach the mountain refuge at the Sarenne Pass (at an altitude of 2,000m) - a superb isolated chalet entirely built with natural materials, and above all a remarkable example of an authentic, environmentally friendly dwelling!
The piste then wends it way through a narrow, isolated valley to the Pont du Gua, a bridge that is unrecognisable beneath a thick layer of snow. The relatively gentle end of the run, at an altitude of 1,500m, is between Alpe d'Huez and Auris-en-Oisans, a neighbouring resort connected directly by chair lift. Once the exclusive preserve of hardened off-piste skiers, since 1976 this run has been superbly maintained with safety features all along its course.
The nocturnal version of the run, which is offered by the resort's operator, SATA, on nights with a full moon, promises a completely new experience, in which seasoned skiers take the cable car to the top of the slope and then head down with the only illumination provided by a head torch. This excursion (about 65€/person) is fully supervised by qualified ski patrollers/first-aiders and only operates if weather conditions permit. The price includes a convivial meal just before the descent in the Chalet du Guc at the summit of the Pic du Lac Blanc.
Sarenne descent "by moonlight" - bookings compulsory (contact SATA):
0033 476 80 30 30
Other fantastic ski runs, many of which are more challenging...
Grand Massif: The Piste des Cascades
This wonderful 12km-long run, involving a total descent of 1,700m, winds it way serenely between the summit of the Domaine de Flaine ski area and the village of Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval. A combination of red and blue runs, this charming route steers deliberately clear of the area's more popular slopes.
From the Crête des Grandes Platières, with its views of Mont Blanc, the piste is clearly marked and maintained, yet well separated from other runs in the area. It passes by the Lac de Gers, hidden beneath a thick layer of ice, alongside which you can stop for a picnic in a charming chalet-gîte. The run then continues through attractive forested landscapes.
Directly opposite, you can take in the grandiose landscape dominated by Mont Buet and the cliffs of the Cirque du Fer-à-Cheval, at the source of the Giffre, a "frozen" river. Here, far from the madding crowds and the noise of chair lifts, your only companion is the muffled sound of pure mountain air in a pristine environment where you can enjoy skiing without the added responsibilities that come with heading off-piste. The run finishes in the hamlet of Salvagny (in the commune of Sixt), where another delightful chalet promises a warming cup of hot tea or chocolate while you wait for the free shuttle bus to Samoëns, from where the cable car takes you back to Flaine.
This adventure can take the whole day, and is well worth the price of your ski pass even if you have the feeling that you haven't used it as much as you would have liked.
Tignes: The Vallon de la Sache
To enjoy this particular run you'll need to put to one side all thoughts of the infinite skiing options of La Grande Motte (glacier) and the link with Val d'Isère (Espace Killy) as you head to the Aiguille Percée ski lifts (2,748m) and on to a seemingly endless red and black run which descends to Tignes-les Brévières, a village at an altitude of 1,550m which is located below the ski resort and near the dam.
Val d'Isère: the Face de Bellevarde
Officially recognised as an "Olympic downhill run" in 1992 and chosen as the venue for the world championships in February 2009, this already legendary black run is both extremely steep and twisting, providing a stiff challenge for amateur skiers. Accessed via Val d'Isère's impressive underground funicular, the piste emerges suddenly on a north-east-facing slope, hurtling down 1,000m of vertical descent from the Roc de Bellevarde to the very heart of this famous resort. On another day, you may want to try your luck on another competitive piste, the OK (Oreiller-Killy) run, which is the venue for the Critérium de la Première Neige!
Méribel: the Piste du Vallon
A series of cable cars and chair lifts transport skiers to the highest run in this mountain trilogy between Courchevel and Val Thorens: the Cime du Vallon, at a heady altitude of 3,300m. From here, the pistes relentlessly follow one after another down to the charming resorts of Mottaret and Méribel, at altitudes of between 1,750m and 1,450m.
Val Thorens: the Orelle run
Europe's highest resort (2,300m) offers numerous challenges for skiers, particularly on runs which lead towards its sister resorts in the Trois Vallées. However, if you feel like breaking with tradition, why not take the cable car to the top of the Cime de Caron (3,230m), from where you can descend the Piste de Rosael on the southern side of the range towards the Maurienne, and down to an altitude of 2,300m.
Grand Serre-Chevalier: from the Yret to the Vallon de Tabuc
Take an intrepid chair lift clinging to the Pointe de l'Yret (at an altitude of 2,830m), overlooking the impressively long central ridge that is part of the Serre-Chevalier ski area. From here, a red run leads to the Col de l'Eychauda, which you ski across to reach the Vallon de Tabuc, twisting and turning through a larch forest as far as Monêtier-les-Bains, at an altitude of 1,500m. Quite an adventure!
Les Arcs: from the Aiguille Rouge to Villaroger
Experienced skiers can take the cable car to the top of the Aiguille Rouge (3,226m), from where a series of black and red runs (Droset, Plan des Violettes) descend to the hamlet of Villaroger (at an altitude of 1,300m), well away from the frenetic pace of the nearby resort of Les Arcs. A charming alternative route!
Grands Montets: from the Aiguille des Grands Montets to the village of Argentière
The hybrid ski area of Les Grands Montets, comprising a series of marked, but ungroomed slopes overlooking the Chamonix valley, continues to be a famous name in international sport. One of the most challenging runs for experienced skiers is the 4km black "panoramic" run which starts out from the cable car station (3,275m) on the edge of the Argentière glacier, joining up with the 3km red "La Pierre à Ric" run between the Chalets de Lognan (1,972m) and the village of Argentière (1,250m). An epic run if ever there was one!
Massif du Sancy: exploring the area between Mont-Dore and Super-Besse
Two famous runs wend their way around the volcanic peak of the Puy de Sancy in the Auvergne: the blue Chemin de Ronde, a 3.5km-long piste on the Super-Besse side of the peak, and the 4km-long Le Pan de la Grange, also a blue run, which extends across the northern Mont-Dore flank of the range.
Two major off-piste* ski areas are also worthy of mention:
The Massif des Ecrins-Oisans, in the Vallons de la Meije
2,100m of powdery vertical descent for technically adept skiers in search of stunning wilderness skiing. Access via a cable car or from the very top of the resort of Les Deux Alpes, at an altitude of 3,600m!
The Vallée Blanche, in the Chamonix-Mont Blanc area
The ultimate location in glacier skiing (either accompanied by a qualified mountain guide or independently*) from the Aiguille du Midi (at an altitude of 3,848m), which is accessible via its legendary cable car, right down into the centre of Chamonix (if snow conditions allow) at an altitude of 1,050m.
* Access to slopes that have no safety features in place and where legal responsibility is assumed by each individual skier. Truly spectacular "high mountain" skiing which is both demanding and involves a level of personal risk.